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I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and in chapter 5 (“Fallen Warrior”) I came across the following sentence:

The suddenness and completeness of death was with them like a presence.

I am wondering, since there are two properties of death described here, shouldn't were be used instead?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Mitch, Edwin Ashworth, Dan Bron, tchrist Aug 17 '15 at 23:18

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    Hi FumbleFingers, I just read the question which you thought my question is a duplicate of, according to answer from that question, were should be used, but J. K. Rowling used was. It would be great if you could elaborate why was should be used here, thanks! – English grammar enthusiast Aug 1 '15 at 13:16
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    It’s being treated as one thing. This sometimes happens. – tchrist Aug 1 '15 at 13:19
  • @tchrist, I am wondering if it would be possible for you explain when two properties can be treated as one. It seems arbitrary to me. Thanks! – English grammar enthusiast Aug 1 '15 at 13:23
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    In your example, the (singular) presence is death, so it's perfectly natural to lump the two closely-related properties together and treat them as singular. There are plenty of "borderline" contexts where the verb could be either singular or plural, but there is that general principle. It's not really "arbitrary" - just not amenable to a definitive right/wrong ruling in every case. – FumbleFingers Aug 1 '15 at 13:37
  • @Fumblefingers Being judged upon on a case-by-case basis is what makes something arbitrary. That's only only a necessarily bad thing in cases where consistent outcomes should be expected, such as governments of their subjects or like in scientific evaluation. While I believe this is the case with words, they can be employed in different ways to convey different things and the only standard to be applied is if you employed them correctly to accurately convey your idea. The only way to know if a sentence is correct is to know what the author thought. – Tonepoet Aug 1 '15 at 16:52
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I'm feeling my way here (snd following on from FumbleFingers's comment).

An extraordinary leader whose vision, values, integrity and boundless curiosity inspires all who follow in his footsteps. (Referred to above as in possible duplicate question)

This contains a list of separate qualities, which can be counted and considered individually. Missing one out would not make a significant change to the meaning. So, being separate, they should take a plural verb.

The suddenness and completeness of death was with them like a presence.

The point here is that the two qualities must be taken together. Death is both sudden and complete. That's its horror: there is no warning and it's final. You cannot separate the suddenness and the completeness, so they become a joint and inclusive noun. Which needs a singular verb.

And the singular verb fits "a presence".

Does that make sense?

  • I do not think so since if you can not separate the traits of death, picking out just these two states seems to be rather inconsistent. It seems like J.K. Rowling is trying to emphasize that they particularly felt these traits are the objects that emanated a presence, rather than death itself or any of the others, since otherwise she could just say "Complete and sudden death was with them like a presence." Then we wouldn't be having this discussion as it'd be clear that death in its totality was the sole noun to be the sentence's subject, while still emphasizing those particular aspects of it. – Tonepoet Aug 1 '15 at 18:00
  • @Tonepoet thanks for you insightful thoughts, your explanation that it depends on what the authors think makes more sense to me. But thanks to Margana nevertheless! – English grammar enthusiast Aug 2 '15 at 3:04
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The sight and sound of death were with them like a presence.

This describes two differing aspects of death.

The suddenness and completeness of death was with them like a presence.

This describes a conglomeration of similar attributes.

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